See Jane Become Dick

"You can't do ... many things that are more transformative or more mind-bending than, you know, having a sex change." This profound understatement is made by Max, formerly Anita, a writer and one of the subjects of the never-not-fascinating documentary You Don't Know Dick: Courageous Hearts of Transsexual Men.

Transsexuals are those "trapped" in the bodies of the opposite sex who undergo hormone therapy and/or surgery to change their sex. Familiar are cases such as that of Dr. Renee Richards, the female tennis player who used to be a dude, at least on the outside. Less understood, perhaps, are the experiences of women who become men, and these are the subject of Dick. The film does a calm and lyrical job of shifting the potential emphasis of the topic from "human oddity" to the distinction between "sexual identity" and "gender identity."

New York-based indie filmmaker Candace Schermerhorn, co-director and -producer of Dick, explains by phone that she approached her subjects as "people with stories as opposed to people with a problem or issue." Consequently, the film does not try to explain why transsexuality occurs. Says Schermerhorn, "This is just one more thing you can go through as a human being."

This "one more thing" is completely compelling. Those profiled in Dick undergo double mastectomies and penile constructions. Michael, an artist who gave birth three times before undergoing his sex change, gives a hilarious account of the basic differences between the hormone-dictated sex drives of men and women. (His bottom line: Men just gotta have it; women like to cuddle.) Then there is the fine art of learning to pee while standing up.

On a philosophical level, the film explores the complicated relationships that exist between transsexual men and their families, friends, lovers and co-workers. The journey is not without its heartaches. Ted, a former seminary student, describes long periods of despair and thoughts of suicide. One of Michael's daughters grieves deeply that her "mother" will not be at her wedding.

As the film makes clear, gender identity affects anyone with a brain and some version of a genital region. Says James, a writer and self-described "transgender activist" and one of the film's most eloquent interviewees, "We have to realize that the exact shape of the penis and the exact size of the penis does not make man."

-- Caryl Herfort

You Don't Know Dick screens at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 5, in conjunction with TransGenderFest (see Events in Calendar). DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 223-8346. $6; $5 for students and seniors.

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Caryl Herfort